By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
The latest film by writer/director Woody Allen is yet another love letter to his favorite era in the twentieth century–the 1930s. In this charming romantic comedy Allen examines this golden age of Hollywood and juxtaposes this social scene with that of New York high society. At its heart Cafe Society is a very lovable and witty romance, but offers nothing dynamically new from the talented filmmaker who gave audiences such films as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and several other great movies. In fact, because Allen’s filmography is very prolific, some of the beats, themes, and characters are starting to feel somewhat familiar, and borderline redundant.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Bobby Dorfman, a young Jewish New Yorker trying to find his own path in life. Not interested in his father’s jewelry business and definitely not wanting to work with his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a violent gangster, Bobby travels to Hollywood to beg his Uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell) for a job. Phil works as a big time talent agent and reluctantly agrees to hire Bobby as an errand boy. Phil asks his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show Bobby around town and help get settled. Bobby instantly falls in love with Vonnie who happens to already be involved in a relationship. Eventually, a love triangle forms with Vonnie stuck in the middle, not knowing whom she should choose. Dissatisfied with his life in Hollywood, Bobby moves back to New York where he opens up a nightclub with his brother Ben and encounters a slightly different kind of shallow and vacuous society.
Allen’s latest, like so many of his films, comes across as loosely based on some of his life experiences. This particular story features the typical Woody Allen protagonist, a meek and neurotic Jewish man who is basically a fish out of water when he first arrives in Hollywood. The romance that sparks between Bobby and Vonnie plays out very sweetly and charmingly, but the mystery behind Vonnie’s boyfriend is fairly transparent. Surrounding Bobby is a rich and colorful assortment of characters that certainly adds to the entertainment, though in ways typical of a Woody Allen movie. The film as a whole is entertaining and poignant, but it seems as if Allen is starting to repeat himself.
As a production, Cafe Society is an appropriately gorgeous affair. From the sets and costumes to the gorgeous cinematography by film legend Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor), the movie is a visual treat. It may be one of the most beautiful looking movies to come out this year. However, much like some of the messages in the film, looks aren’t everything, and they also can be deceiving. That isn’t to say that the movie is a shallow one. I was simply expecting more from the filmmaker. Like most of Allen’s movies, it has smart writing, witty comedy, and bittersweet romance. Allen has always had a way with portraying the highs and lows of falling in love and the heartbreak that sometimes comes with it. The cast assembled for the film is absolutely superb with the two lead characters offering what might be some of the best work of their careers.
Jesse Eisenberg might be the perfect actor (besides Allen, himself) to portray the typical, awkward and neurotic Allen character that often appears in his films. Eisenberg is an absolute joy to watch and he delivers a lovely and amusing performance full of much heart and earnestness. After offering a rather annoying take on Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman, I was happy to see him in one of his more lovable roles. I was also quite impressed with Kristen Stewart who has had her acting ups and downs in her career. From what I have observed, Stewart, when working with exceptional directors, has the ability to deliver strong work. With her performance as Vonnie in this movie, Stewart proves herself as a solid romantic lead. Besides Steve Carell who is excellent as Uncle Phil Stern and Corey Stoll who is amazing as Ben, the exceptional cast includes Sheryl Lee, Jeannie Berlin, Blake Lively, and Ken Stott. Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott are an absolute riot as Bobby’s more traditional parents Rose and Marty Dorfman.
Even though this particular entry by Woody Allen falls a bit shorter than his usual work, it is still an enjoyable movie full of heart. Fans of Allen will probably still like the movie, but will certainly recognize his familiar elements through and through. For those who don’t really care for Woody Allen’s brand of humor and romance, then this film might be one to skip. As for those who have enjoyed some of his work, but are not die-hard fans yet, the filmmaker has plenty of other better films that might be worth checking out before this one.